Mayors: A Responsive City Needs Great Internet Access

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This is a guest post by Susan Crawford.

A recent Webby Awards/Harris Interactive poll found that consumers – constituents, in other words – have come to expect real-time tracking, same-day delivery, and the opportunity to provide instant feedback regarding every service and business they encounter.

80 percent of respondents said they expect payments to be handled automatically, 85 percent expect to see reviews from other customers, and 60 percent expect services to learn about their preferences. In the next five years, these expectations are only going to be higher; nearly 50 percent of respondents said they expect that there will be a service within the next five years that ships them products they need before they order them.

Meanwhile, the digital divide in U.S. cities remains staggering. 56 percent of Detroit households don’t have what the FCC calls “fixed broadband subscriptions” (meaning anything other than dial-up or mobile devices), and 40 percent have no Internet access at all (meaning they have no wired or mobile access). More than 36 percent of Cleveland residents have no Internet access at all. Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all on the list as well. (Here’s the full ranking of cities with more than 50,000 residents.)

Mayors know that public trust in the institutions of the federal government is at record low levels these days. But mayors also know that public trust in local government remains strong. Mayors get things done; they don’t have time to play polarized, corrosive politics.

And here’s the kicker: polls show that world-class Internet access is becoming a voting issue in America.

What can a mayor do to ensure (a) the services his or her city is providing meet constituents’ expectations (keeping trust in the effectiveness of local government high), (b) all of his or her constituents have world-class, reasonably priced, high capacity Internet access where they live, work and play (so that every resident is treated with dignity and given the opportunity to thrive), and (c) constituents are convinced that tomorrow will be better than today?

The answer lies in municipal fiber. Its time has come.

Without city-controlled fiber-optic lines connecting municipal buildings and the pulsing infrastructure of the city – transport, energy, water, sewage, public safety etc. – your city won’t be able to gather, aggregate, visualize, collaborate over, ship around among agencies, report on, or even use the data you should know about in order to effectively manage a 21st century municipality. (You’ll find a useful set of case studies reporting on the exciting intersections among cities and data in my recent book, “The Responsive City,” co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith.) Only fiber has the symmetric (both upload and download) capacity you’ll need to handle these floods of data. And once it’s in, it’s good for decades – to upgrade, all you’ll need to do is swap out the electronics at the end points. As far as scientists can tell, fiber has an unlimited capacity to carry information. And in order to provide the digital window on your city that your voters will increasingly demand – the predictions, easy payment mechanisms, real-time services, visual feedback and data-driven policies they will expect from all interactions – you’ll need fiber.

Those fiber-optic lines linking city infrastructure need to be controlled by the city; your constituents need reasonably-priced connectivity. Starting with city buildings is a good way to launch a city network. Just ask my hometown of Santa Monica, California, which saved so much money by dropping leased services and wiring its municipal buildings itself that it now provides service to businesses – and is ready to move to fiber to the home.

And municipal fiber is how you can close the digital divide that is the scourge of so many U.S. cities. Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Finally, the excitement, pride, and relief of people who see that their city is capable of great things will add up to votes for the leaders involved. People are aching for reliable, effective, nonpartisan leadership. They still trust their mayors, many of whom have recently joined Next Century Cities to learn more about municipal fiber.

​Now that about twenty states have put barriers in place making community high speed Internet access initiatives difficult (and we know additional state barriers will be proposed this year), local leaders are also banding together in the Coalition for Local Internet Choice to oppose barriers to local choice.​

Why? Because these state-imposed limits are bad for the communities involved, bad for the private sector, and bad for America’s global competitiveness. 2015 looks like a good year for forward thinking.

Susan Crawford bio photoAbout the author: Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and a contributor to Medium.com’s Backchannel.